Randy's Corner Deli Library

11 February 2006

For those of us with a fascination at the capacity of man to be cruel others, I invite you to read the following review. It looks as though the book and DVD under discussion ought to be in the library of those with an interest in Holocaust studies in general and in the German response to it following the cessation of the war.

What is this book's place in the literature that include's Goldhagen's _Ordinary Germans_? Or Hannah Arent's _Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil_? Did it take sensationalism in the local press for Germans to take a look at what they had, in one way or another, permitted? Why was the subject Court placed in essentially the same position as the Nazi tribunal that looked at "corruption" at Auschwitz in 1943 -- looking only, really, at those people who went beyong the "call of duty" to satisfy their own bloodlust? What about the "duty" itself? Was that ever called into question during the trial? Or were these statistical "outliers"?

I think that Arendt's book concerning the Eichmann trial and its motivations and conduct is quintessential reading to answer some of these questions which certainly, because of newly available documentation, is first exposed in the subject book. But the trial of Eichmann in Israel in 1962 exposed, if these trials did not, the sense of the overall involvement, the banality if you will, of the "duty" of "ordinary Germans" to make Germany "Judenrein". This book will go on my "to read" list to fill in some holes in my understanding at the very least with the hope that it will demonstrate its worth on its own merit based on the newly available documentation.

Published by H-German@h-net.msu.edu

(February 2006) Rebecca Wittmann. _Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial_. Cambridge andLondon: Harvard University Press, 2005. ix + 336 pp. Illustrations, notes,bibliography, index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-674-01694-7.

Digitale Bibliothek. _Der Auschwitz-Prozeß_. Herausgegeben vom Fritz BauerInstitut Frankfurt am Main und dem Staatlichen Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau.Berlin: Directmedia, 2004. EUR 45.00 (DVD-ROM), ISBN 3-89853-501-0.

Reviewed for H-German by Caroline Sharples, Department of History,University of Southampton

Putting the Past on Trial

The Auschwitz trial was the largest Nazi war crimes trial to take placeunder the jurisdiction of the Federal Republic. Staged in Frankfurt am Mainbetween December 1963 and August 1965, the proceedings against twenty formerextermination camp personnel lasted over 180 days and called upon 254witnesses. The trial commanded massive media attention, both within the WestGerman state and abroad. It stood in stark contrast to earlier West Germantreatment of Nazi atrocities. During the late 1940s, popular voices calledfor an end to the Allied-imposed denazification process, and for theamnesties of those already sentenced by Allied tribunals. Once the FederalRepublic gained its sovereignty in 1949, the number of war crimesprosecutions fell rapidly. The Allies rendered 5,006 convictions between1947 and 1950; in 1954, there were just 44.[1]

It was not until the UlmEinsatzkommando trial in 1958 and the subsequent establishment of theZentrale Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltung zur Aufklärungnationalsozialistischer Verbrechen in Ludwigsburg that the West Germanjudiciary was seen to be taking the Nazi past more seriously.As a result, the Auschwitz trial--together with the 1961 prosecution ofAdolf Eichmann in Jerusalem--has been popularly regarded by historians asone of the key factors in inspiring a more critical West German engagementwith the legacy of the Third Reich.

Ian Buruma insists that, for the WestGerman people, the Auschwitz trial "was the one history lesson thatstuck."[2] Similarly, Mark Osiel argues that the trial "captured theimagination of millions of young Germans as virtually nothing about thecountry's past had done before."[3] Despite such claims, however, there hasbeen little critical analysis to date of the trial and its impact upon theWest German population.[4]

This absence of work on the Auschwitz trial stems from the fact that primary source material on the proceedings was not made available to researchers until fairly recently. Federal German law precludedthe release of trial documents until thirty years after the case's conclusion, while the proceedings themselves had been audiotaped rather than transcribed. Only in the last few years has the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt completed the transcription of some fifty hours worth of tape recordings.

Rebecca Wittmann's new book thus represents the first detailed study on the trial, a valuable contribution that draws upon previously untapped evidence and fills a significant gap within existing war crimes historiography. A glance at Wittmann's work reveals that the long wait for a detailed account of the Auschwitz trial has proved worthwhile.

Over the course of six chapters, the entire history of the trial is laid bare in meticulous detail from its inception to the final sentencing. For those unfamiliar with thehistory of Nazi war crimes trials up to this point, the first chapter provides a concise overview, exploring earlier Allied policies as well as competing political interpretations of the Nazi past played out between Adenauer and Schumacher during the formative years of the Federal Republic. Wittmann explains the nature of the West German penal code and its capacity for dealing with Nazi crimes, together with the ongoing political debates onthe Statute of Limitations that came to characterize the 1960s.

The remaining five chapters deal in turn with pre-trial investigations leading up to the Auschwitz trial, the indictment, the course of the trial itself, the judgment and, finally, the response leveled at the verdict by Fritz Bauer (Attorney General for the State of Hesse), the media (including theWest German and international press), Holocaust survivors and other contemporary observers.Wittmann's chief argument rests in her claim that--despite all the educational ambitions invested by prosecuting agencies in the run up to the trial, and despite the subsequent claims made by historians--the Auschwitz trial produced a paradoxical result.

It certainly brought the history of the extermination camp to a far wider West German audience, inspiring Peter Weiss's 1965 play, _The Investigation_, and producing much excitement among the West German media. The press followed the proceedings avidly, with dramatic headlines relaying each day's events to their readers. Yet the very nature of this press coverage distorted reality. Sensationalized articles demonized the defendants and emphasized the most sadistic acts described in the Frankfurt courtroom. Wittmann comments, "It was almost a pornography ofthe Holocaust, that both sold papers and distanced the general public from the monsters on the stand whose actions were reported in graphic detail"(p.176).

This implicit distinction between the perpetrators of the Holocaust and the"ordinary" West German population, though, could be traced back to the nature of the proceedings themselves. Indeed, as Wittmann argues, the language of the indictment revealed how the basis for bringing the defendants to trial rested on "the maltreatment of prisoners and excessive cruelty leading to death, rather than murder per se" (p.101). During the trial itself, lesser crimes were relativized, not least as a result of a reliance on the testimony of former SS personnel.

In 1943, the Morgen Commission was sent to Auschwitz to investigate allegations of corruption among the camp staff. Its leader, former Nazi judge Konrad Morgen, now appeared in Frankfurt, outlining examples where defendants had used their own initiative to follow their sadistic instincts. As a result, the Auschwitz proceedings became a trial of excess perpetrators, men who could clearly be seen as going beyond the call of "duty" to satisfy their own bloodlust. Wittmann notes that "the limitations of the law obscured more than they revealed, by making the prosecution dependent on the same standards of illegality the Nazis themselves had used to investigate criminal activity in the camps" (p.271-2).Wittmann's book thus provides a refreshing corrective to previous scholarlyclaims about the impact of the Auschwitz trial. Through her careful and immensely detailed analysis of the proceedings, Wittmann offers new evidence of the trial's impact upon the West German people, and the extent to which it really can be said to have altered popular attitudes towards the Nazi past.

Her findings highlight the contradictory nature of war crimes trials and their treatment within the media, underlining the need to go beyond conventional historical narratives and acknowledge the complexities involved within any study of _Vergangenheitsbewältigung_ in 1960s West Germany.

As Wittmann concludes: "There is no doubt that the Auschwitz trial did, at least for a short time, bring the atrocities of the Nazi regime to the fore.The daily press coverage and most especially the widely staged, important and sensational play _The Investigation_ by Peter Weiss, provided constant reminders to the public of the crimes committed by former Nazis who were then living in freedom in Germany.... At the same time, though, most people saw the grisly crimes of the sadistic defendants as if they were part of a macabre fantasy world...and did not make a connection between the perpetrators on trial, the harmless neighbors living peacefully beside them, and their own role in the Nazi past.

To them the trial seemed to have done its job, properly punishing the real monsters and leaving the rest, people who had been confused, coerced or brainwashed into collaborating with the Nazis, to go on with their lives" (p.247).

A perfect accompaniment to Wittmann's study comes in the form of a newDVD-ROM compiled by the Fritz Bauer Institute and the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum. This resource provides a good starting point for examining the trial. It contains a wealth of documents, photographs, plans and transcripts from the Auschwitz trial, including witness statements. A brief overview of each of the twenty defendants is included, citing their date of birth, former SS rank and role in the Nazi regime and the charges leveled against them. Users are able to follow the key moments in the trial from start to finish, or look up key terms or individual names within an easy to use search facility. The program even includes some of the audio recordings from the proceedings, enabling us to hear the testimonies for ourselves andliterally bringing the case to life.

Thus, after decades of neglect, the history of 1963-65 Frankfurt Auschwitztrial has suddenly become accessible as a result of these two new resources, marking a long overdue but vital contribution to the field of war crimes trials and the history of _Vergangenheitsbewältigung_.

Notes [1]. Statistics taken from C.M. Clark, "West German Confronts the Nazi Past:Some Recent Debates on the Early Postwar Era, 1945-1960," _The EuropeanLegacy_ 4 (1999), p. 122. For details on the amnesty campaigns of the late1940s and 1950s, see Norbert Frei, _Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past:The Politics of Amnesty and Integration_, translated by J. Golb (New York:Columbia University Press, 2002), pp. 203-233.

[2]. Ian Buruma, _The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan_(London: Vintage, 1995), p. 149.

[3]. Mark Osiel, _Mass Atrocity, Collective Memory and the Law_ (NewBrunswick: Transaction, 1997), pp. 192-193.

[4]. Existing works on the Auschwitz case have been confined to publications during the 1960s by trial observers. See Bernd Naumann, _Auschwitz: A Reporton the Proceedings Against Robert Karl Ludwig Mulka and Others Before theCourt at Frankfurt_, translated by J. Steinberg (London: Pall Mall Press,1966); and Hermann Langbein, _Der Auschwitz-Prozess: Eine Dokumentation_(Vienna: Europa Verlag, 1965).

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